The beginning of my senior year of college was depressing. While most people are excited to kick off their final year of college – a culmination of years making friends and memories – I found myself alone in a tiny studio apartment on The Ave.
“The Ave” is University Ave., a street that borders the main campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. In the fall of 1997, it was littered with ethnic restaurants, a classic old movie theater, funky little bookstores, a Tower Records, and adult video shops. My apartment was about 400 sqft and on the 3rd floor of a 1930s building right in the middle of the action. I can still recall the musty smell of the dim hallways, the shiny parquet wood floors of my studio apartment, and how I could watch homeless people digging through the trash in the alley from my window (which was a perfectly acceptable way to pass the time pre-Google).
The apartment was sparsely decorated. My main seating was a little upholstered barrel armchair I picked up at the Goodwill that someone definitely died in. Or someone came near death and fell out of before dying on the floor or being taken by ambulance to die at the hospital.
I repurposed a rough tree stump as a multi-use table in front of the chair. Against one wall was a desk with my giant, takes-5-minutes-to-warm-up-and-sounds-like-an-airliner desktop computer. I also had a small TV where I’d watch Friends and Frasier every Thursday night and eat graham crackers. My bed was a generous double for a girl who slept alone and was covered in an aggressively floral bedspread. My mom hung white, lace curtains on the window above my bed when she helped me move in, so there was a creepy antique doll B&B vibe on that side of the room.
Why did I live alone in a Victorian/hobo-chic apartment when other college seniors were doing keg stands and dancing in bikinis to Baby Got Back on MTV’s Spring Break?
To answer that question, I need to back up a bit, to my senior year of high school.
I chose my first college because 1) a nice brochure arrived in the mail and 2) it was in California.
Back then everyone took the SATs the old-fashioned way – only once, without prep, and with two sharpened #2 pencils. With such low competition nationwide, I managed to get into my first, poorly chosen, school.
In August 1994 I was off, driving with my mom from Maryland to Southern California in my 2-door Acura, loaded with the essentials for a blossoming 18-year-old girl – a shower caddy, a fan that clips to the bed, a Christian Slater poster, and vague, lofty dreams.
The school and I were not a fit. I made some great friends, but the college itself was religious and way too restrictive for me. I didn’t have a boyfriend but was certainly not going to let the college tell me I couldn’t have sex with him.
In addition to the “no sex with your non-existent boyfriend” type rules, I was accused of plagiarism by a professor during my first semester of college for combining two types of citation styles in a paper, a rhetorical analysis of Justice Stephen Breyer’s Supreme Court nomination hearings. It was a real page-turner I’m sure, so it’s possible my professor just got bored and decided to spice things up with months of judiciary hearings. I was “exonerated” (although that term is probably best reserved for the more deserving, like the Central Park Five), in the final weeks of my freshman year, but I was pretty jaded by then and wanted out.
That spring, I stumbled on a poster advertising a study abroad program in Italy. The poster was nice, so I applied. By August I was flying to Florence, Italy with 41 other American college students.
My sophomore year of college was metamorphic. I took Italian Literature, Art History, Economics, and Italian. We read Danté’s Divine Comedy in Italian and I think my brain still hurts from that experience. We lived in an old, converted villa in the middle of Florence. An Albanian woman named Mira made all our food. She was so kind and the food was so delicious that I decided to name my first-born daughter Mira. Until I finally had a daughter in 2011 and Mira and her delicious food didn’t strike much of a memory anymore.
Most of my recollections from that year are of times I spent with my friends, going to bars, traveling all over Europe on our frequent breaks, and getting into mishaps. We apparently went to some museums and world heritage sites as well. We had a lot of freedom and after a year of restriction at a small, religious college, were like a bunch of Amish kids on Rumspringa. We tossed our bonnets and butter churners aside to jump on overnight trains to wherever our finger landed on the map; to explore, drink beer, dance, and kiss European men.
My friends and I traveled all over Europe, from Greece to Poland and Hungary to the UK and almost everywhere in-between. We have funny stories and creepy stories; some creepy and funny. Like the time my friend woke on a crowded overnight train in Germany to a man masturbating on her back and started screaming and so I started screaming too. The transit police came running and the lights all came on and we had to pantomime what the now sheepish man had been doing because we didn’t speak German. They dragged him away and the lights went back off and we tried to fall back asleep with a bunch of strangers as if we hadn’t just been screaming and pantomiming masturbation.
At some point, I took a break from the revelry and dodging creeps to think about my future and decided I wanted to save the world one day. Using a dial-up internet connection and the one desktop computer in our villa, I discovered a program at the University of Washington in Sociology with faculty that specialized in International Development. There was also a photo of Suzzallo Library and Mt. Rainier, and it looked really nice, so I applied.
By September I was, once again, driving my 2-door Acura across the country with my mom, this time with flannel, Doc Martens, and a more specific lofty dream, to Seattle.
I met Scott on my first day at the University of Washington. My mom just dropped me and flew out – which is what parents did back then – and I went to a transfer student BBQ. I overheard Scott say he was from Philadelphia, and since I was from Maryland we were practically neighbors, so I introduced myself.
My roommate and I were the only girls on the floor of our dorm with thirty guys. I’m still not sure why that happened, although I wasn’t complaining, and we had a really big bathroom with five shower stalls all to ourselves.
Eventually, Scott and I went from “friends” to “more than friends” and we hung out with two or three other guys all the time. It was a nice group, we were all pretty studious, but had fun together, and we enjoyed sitting at a little local pub, drinking craft beer, and debating world issues like we knew everything.
Which brings me to my senior year and my lonely, porcelain doll apartment.
At the end of our junior year of college, Scott returned to Bates College in Maine, another friend transferred to RISD, and another dropped out. I lost three out of four friends, including my boyfriend who I’d invested the majority of my time. My remaining friend got a house with a bunch of other guys I didn’t know and went on to live out a fantastic senior year, or so I imagined.
So I sat, in my lonely little apartment, starting over as a senior in college, at a school with over 35,000 students. I cried for weeks, or maybe months. I didn’t know how to make friends that late in the game when everyone else already had their groups. I felt massive regret. I had friends; they just weren’t in Seattle. Why on earth did I switch things up so much? Why was I so cavalier about transferring schools and leaving friends behind?
I started seeing a therapist because I -literally- could not stop crying and it was getting embarrassing. She suggested I adhere to a routine to keep my days structured and gave me homework: approach someone who seemed nice and ask them on a “friend date.”
I started with a routine: I ran every day, first thing in the morning, on a trail along Lake Washington. I listened to a Van Morrison CD on my Discman (which was a stupid invention because it jiggled when I ran and the CD would skip). Otherwise, I went to my classes and studied. I ate lunch in the main cafeteria so I didn’t hole up in my apartment too much. I decided to aim for straight A’s since I had no friends to distract me with their humor and camaraderie.
To entertain myself, I’d go into Suzzallo Library and try to find old, gruesome small-town newspaper articles on microfiche. Sometimes I’d stumble on a gem. Like an article from 1932 about a man who was run over by his own ice cream truck. Back then writers always went into excruciating detail – the weather was bright and cheerful, for example, giving no indication of the tragedy about to unfold. They’d mention that the children lined up in innocent merriment waiting for their first cold treat of summer and then looked on in horror as their beloved ice cream man’s life was cut short in a most unexpected and hideous way. And, by the way, he left a young wife and nine children behind who came into the street and wailed upon hearing of his untimely demise.
I’d peruse the old-time articles like an anthropologist. An anthropologist who specializes in the macabre stuff.
Eventually, I took my therapist’s advice and decided to ask someone out on a “friend date.” The first person I asked out was named April. She was in my Geography of Something or Other class and seemed nice. I saw her eating in the cafeteria alone one time so I thought maybe she didn’t have any friends either. I stopped her after class and asked her if she wanted to go see Titanic with me. She promptly and emphatically, in hindsight, declined.
The next time I played it a tad cooler. Natalie was in another class and seemed talkative and funny. I asked if she wanted to study with me sometime, and she said yes. We ended up forming a small study group with two other girls and met at a coffee shop weekly. Suddenly, I had people to talk to!
Meanwhile, my friend Seth, who’d temporarily dropped out, came back to Seattle and we reconnected. We had fun listening to music, laughing, and occasionally lying on his apartment floor staring at the ceiling after sampling illicit substances. And fuck you April, Seth went to see Titanic with me.
And the next thing I knew, it was my college graduation. I’d survived my senior year, earned straight A’s, memorized the lyrics to all the songs on Moondance, and made a new lifelong friend (yo Natalie!). My family flew out for my graduation and we ate at an oyster restaurant and toasted my scattered four years of college.
I look back on college now as a microcosm of the rest of my life so far. I still tend to make pretty impulsive decisions and move a lot. As I get older, I’m embracing that part of myself more.
Change is hard and unsettling, it makes us feel vulnerable. It’s hard being friendless or struggling to find your way around a new job or a new city. You embarrass yourself by getting lost or asking dumb questions because you don’t speak the language or know what a QED report is. It’s a lot more comfortable being the expert, the big man on campus, rather than the newbie, or the senior in college with no friends, sitting alone in the cafeteria with just your veggie burger and Diet Coke for company.
The difference between me at 22 and me now is that I know it’s all part of the process. Life is constantly changing whether I move, start a new job, quit something, join something, or not, so I might as well embrace it all. Life changes whether I welcome change or not. There are no experts in life. We’re all feeling our way around, half-flailing, and wondering if we’re doing it right.
I still find comfort in searching for gruesome historical articles when I’m lonely, but now I don’t need to traipse to the library for microfiche because I have a great internet connection.
We all have our coping mechanisms.